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“There was no white linen, for my husband.” – People Like Us

“There was no white linen, for my husband.”

That was one of the repeated lines in People Like Us, Sandi Johnson’s new play.  Sarah Louise Turner plays Kate Rourke, wife of a 1991 Gulf War veteran, in an emotionally-evocative solo performance that had me in laughter and in tears.

I saw the first preview of the world premiere last night at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.  And if my remaining time in Vancouver wasn’t already booked up with professional commitments, I’d be tempted to see it again.

“He held his cutlery like a prince.”  In another repeated line, she shows us a glimpse of Gerry, the gallant man she married, kind, loyal, honoured to be a soldier – a man who once lifted her off her feet on the way home from a Christmas party in Petawawa to carry her across an intersection in her velvet dress in a snow storm.

Her narrative slips among times, the present (2001), the time before Gerry’s posting to Iraq, while he’s away, and how she copes after he returns home physically and mentally damaged.  But the story’s easy to follow, due to clear writing and Ms Turner’s shifts in voice and body language.  She becomes Gerry’s advocate with the military and the doctors, and gradually she starts helping other veterans conquer their own bureaucratic opponents.  “Helping military veterans apply for medical marijuana – that should be a marketable skill?”  She becomes known as the “Yarmouth (NS) Bulldog” for her tenacity.

She also maintains her love of belly dance, and a few times during the play she puts on scarves, coin belt, and zils to show how the dancing helps her maintain her power and sensuality during difficult times.  The connection between “the Middle East” of the belly-dance culture, and her second-hand experience of Iraq through television and phone calls and Gerry’s flashbacks, is not spelled out at all.  The story unfolds in a subtle way not often seen in short theatre pieces.  A few times I thought I guessed at a disaster to come, and I was always wrong.   The performer carries out various stage business during the narrative (folding laundry, packing a suitcase, making tea and drinking it), but this never distracted me from what she was saying.  Instead it just emphasized her get-on-with-things attitude as a determined mother and military wife.

Firehall Arts Centre is an effective medium-size black box performance space.  The set (designed by Amanda Larder) was fascinating – at first I saw the re-creation of a clean cozy family living room, with flowered upholstery, baskets of laundry, cups of tea, and wide worn floorboards, but gradually I took in the backdrop and ceiling from a different world.  You see, above the white wainscoting, the room had been covered by a military-style canvas tent, only instead of conventional green camouflage or desert camouflage, the dirty stained fabrics included some Laura Ashley style flowered brocades or wallpapers.  And partway through the show, I realised that along the walls of the room were little piles of sand, as if the tent/walls were insufficient to keep out the encroaching desert, just as Kate’s attempts to make a safe familiar home for her husband and children were not sufficient to keep the effects of war away from them.

This production continues at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver until November 16th.  I don’t know if there are any plans for it to travel.  There should be.

Aactor Aaron Craven (er, actor) describes some unexpected happenings on closing night of the play I saw in Vancouver last week.


Half hour to curtain. We actors were finishing off our vocal warmups on the theatre floor.  A sold out house was streaming into the lobby, the pre-show wine and conversation buzzing. This was to be  the closing night performance of David Mamet’s RACE, my theatre company’s play that had sold out several times during its run in Vancouver and been so well received by local theatre critics and audiences.  The collective energy in the building was crackling and the cast and crew were hyped for one final go at this sublime piece of theatre.


I guess the show was just a bit too hot.

7:35pm.  The fire alarm starts to ring.  Our first thought, of course: false alarm.  Then, the technical director notes smoke at the back of the building.  The cast exits into the back alley, the audience is cleared onto the front sidewalk as fire engines stream in.

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David Mamet’s Race – Which could have been Sex. Or Rape. Or Power.

Race, by David Mamet, Mitch and Murray Productions, Studio 16 in Vancouver.  Runs til December 1st.

On my recent trip to Vancouver, I took one evening away from family celebrations to see a play.  The one I chose was the Mitch and Murray production of David Mamet’s 2009 play Race, directed by David Mackay.  The actors are Kwesi Ameyaw, Craig Erickson, Aaron Craven, and Marsha Regis.  An interesting change for me, coming from reading theatre programs in Edmonton, was that all these actors have resumés full of Vancouver-filmed-television credits (Supernatural, Fringe, the Da Vinci and Stargate series, etc).

Race is set in the conference room of a law office, in a city in the USA.  I don’t think the city is specified, but I imagined Chicago and that worked.  The new client, a rich 40ish white man, has been charged with sexually assaulting a younger black woman.  The lawyers are a white man and a black man, partners in the law firm, and their younger associate (or possibly articling student), a black woman.

The story was more about the interactions among the lawyers than about the case or the accused, or at least the interesting parts were.  And of course it wasn’t just about race and the American conversations about race, it was about race and gender and power and the interplay among them.  I could easily see how it was part of the same oeuvre as Oleanna.  It’s also very much about the factors other than objective facts which are relevant in a legal case.

I didn’t feel like anything got resolved in the story, but I don’t think I was supposed to.  The director’s notes in the program acknowledge his discomfort as a privileged white Canadian directing a play by a conservative white American about race relations.  But I would have liked to also see some acknowledgement that as men they might be finding it equally difficult to be telling a story about a woman’s rape.  The one female character on stage, Susan, was the younger black lawyer working for the two male partners in the firm.  Although the rape victim was not a character on stage in the play, watching the other characters interact with Susan showed important glimpses into their treatment of gender, race, and power differentials.  Given this awareness, I found myself conscious of and uncomfortable with the way Susan was dressed.  Her employers are wearing comfortable-looking men’s business clothes, one with a buttoned vest and the other with a suit jacket on.  But she is wearing a very snug collared blouse and skirt, bare legs, and heels, which draw attention to her body shape.  I can’t say that any of that would be inappropriate for a young woman lawyer on a day she’s not going to court – all I know about women lawyers in the USA is from The Good Wife and Damages – but it sure shows that women’s choices get subjected to a different kind of scrutiny than men do.

I don’t think I would like David Mamet as a person, or most of his characters whom I’ve seen in plays and movies.  But I really enjoy the dialogue in his work.  It’s so snappy and snarky and clever and at the same time the disjointed interrupted repetitions sound credible.

The play ran about 80 minutes.  It had three acts or scenes, marked by sudden complete darkening of the stage.  I don’t think there was any music.  The set was an appealing simple representation of a conference room in a small unpretentious law firm, with files, a water service, yellow pads and pencils set out on a glass table, hanging panels creating the sense of walls, and one piece of art hanging on the wall which kept distracting me into trying to figure out how it was illuminated.

The theatre, Studio 16, is in a Francophone community centre just south of Granville Island on the way to Kitsilano.  It had about 90 seats on low risers along two sides of the performance space.

I’m left feeling like the play didn’t really tell me things I hadn’t known before; it just made me think about them.  And it didn’t actually make me as uncomfortable as it could have.  I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad, because as an evening’s entertainment I don’t have complaints.